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Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and an expert in United States foreign policy, is responsible for the organization's overall advocacy efforts with the US government. He[…]

Tom Malinowski, the Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, explains the dangers of even theoretically rationalizing torture, and calls on us all to be human rights advocates.

Question: How do you respond to “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios that justify torture?

Tom Malinowski: I’m familiar that academics love to spin really interesting scenarios involving unsolvable moral dilemmas. That’s something that’s really fun if you’re running a seminar at Harvard University. I think that [it has] virtually no relationship to what goes on in the real world. So-called “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios in which you refer to when people say, “What if we got a terrorist, and we know that that terrorist knows where a bomb is going to go off in 48 hours. That’s going to kill a lot of innocent people, and he’s not willing to tell us where.” Wouldn’t you be willing to torture that person under that circumstance, if that’s the only way to get the information?

Lot of ifs there in that scenario. Problem is, in the real world, that doesn’t happen. First of all, you never pick up somebody and know that that person knows a bomb is going to go off. You never know that there’s a bomb about to go off in a particular time, you don’t know where it’s going to go off, and then suddenly by chance you capture someone and you know that that person knows the one thing that you don’t know. Second of all, in the real world, you pick up a terrorist who’s a member of a cell or an organization that is in fact about to do something really awful—the very fact that you have arrested that terrorist means almost certainly that his cell or organization is going to cancel their plans or alter them because they know that they’re going to be compromised. And so in the real world when we pick up people, when the CIA picks up people, or the military or the FBI, what they’re asking about is not the ticking bomb, what they’re asking about is who are the names of your co-conspirators? Where do they bank? What are their cell-phone numbers? Tell us about how you operate; the kinds of things that you are planning. Not because we know those things are going to happen, but just to get a sense of how they operate. And all of those are really vital pieces of information. And you interrogate a hundred people in Al Qaeda, you put all that stuff together, you’re going to avert attack and you’re going to save lives. But it’s not the same thing as a ticking bomb, and everybody we pick up in Afghanistan, everyone we pick up in Iraq, everyone we pick up in a safe house, in Paris, or London, or Manila may have some small piece of that larger puzzle. And so, in the real world, when you start making this ticking bomb argument and you apply it to those cases, eventually you end up torturing hundreds or thousands of people—which is what happened. So, it’s a fun academic exercise that has very dangerous consequences in the real world.

Question: Is there any evidence that torture is useful?

Tom Malinowski: Torture is incredibly useful if your goal is to extract confessions from people. If I know that I want you to tell me that you were plotting to overthrow the government of the United States or Saudi Arabia, or Russia, or China. Torture is an incredibly useful tool to get you to tell me that, even if it’s not true. And that’s what it’s used for by brutal regimes around the world. If my goal is to humiliate you, to punish you, to make you feel helpless, to make you feel like there is no hope for you, and I’m in total control over you. Torture is an incredibly effective tool, and that’s another thing that torture is used for by brutal regimes around the world. But if my goal is to get you to tell me something that is true and that I don’t already know, torture is one of the least effective methods that I can use. Because what you’re likely to do if I torture you for some information is to try to calculate in your own mind, what do I want to hear? And then you are going to tell me that thing that I want to hear so that I would stop torturing you. And what I want to hear may not be the truth; it may just be what I want to hear. So most experienced intelligence gatherers and interrogators will say it’s the worst thing you can do. And I think looking back over the last eight years we probably lost a lot more lives as result to torture than, than we saved, if we saved any.

Question: Why should we all be human rights advocates?

Tom Malinowski: We should all be human rights advocates. We don’t all have to be activists, we should all be human rights advocates because that’s the moral basis of our civilization—to have a set of rules that prevent cruelty, mistreatment, abuse of our dignity and our liberty by those who have power over us in other respects, and because it’s in our interest.

Most of the world’s most pressing problems, I’ve always thought, are fundamentally rooted in dysfunctional relationships between people and their governments. Think about all the conflicts of the 20th century. World War II was fundamentally rooted in the rise of regimes and countries like Germany that were based on the suppression of liberty, that were based on the notion that one man or one government could and should seek absolute power over everybody else, which in turn lead to conquest and war and the crisis that we have to respond to in enormous cost of lives.

The Cold War was fundamentally rooted in the suppression of liberty in Eastern Europe by the Soviet empire. Something that caused enormous tension and insecurity and led to a 50-year struggle by the United States that also cost us a great deal. Most of the conflicts that we’ve responded to as a country, whether the awful war in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s, were rooted in human rights abuses.

The Iraq conflicts of the last ten years go back to 1988-89 when Saddam Hussein was using poison gas against his own people and the world did nothing about it. He drew the conclusion, I think, from that episode that he could get away with anything, and so he invaded Kuwait. And we had a Gulf War, and then we had sanctions, and then we had an invasion, and all of that terrible history that we suffered as result of that active indifference. So if we care about the character of the world in which we live, if we care about avoiding conflicts and crises that draw [us] in and forces [us] to expend lives and treasure to resolve, then you have to care about fixing the underlying problem of how people are treated by their governments.

Recorded on:  July 29, 2009